Tuesday, August 4, 2015


"Clare Cavendish. Why me? Why now?"

Nora Shaw, a twenty-six-year-old crime writer living a solitary life in London, is frantically running through the woods. For her life? Towards something? What began as a "hen night" (bachelorette party to us here in the U.S.) shrouded in mystery and weirdness has obviously not ended well, and next thing she knows Nora has landed herself in the hospital, cops at her door, with little to no memory of how and why she got there.

Hen parties are rough.

Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood is an unstable trip down memory lane for the six attendees of Clare Cavendish's hen party. Nora is beyond surprised to receive an invite (and learn Clare is getting married), since their friendship came to an abrupt end ten years ago and they haven't spoken since.

Something happened when Clare and Nora were sixteen and it changed Nora's life, spinning her off on her current path of isolation. She and Clare had been thick as thieves though polar opposites:

I don't know if you know what it's like being chosen by someone like Clare. It's as though a warm searchlight has picked you out and bathed you in its sunshine. You feel at once exposed, and flattered. Everyone looks at you, and you can see them wonder, Why her?

Despite her apprehension, Nora makes a pact with her friend and co-invitee Nina to go to the party, which is held over a weekend at a house in the woods. Not just any house, but an out of place collection of glass and steel that seems built by exhibitionists, so great is the feeling that the house is an open stage to be viewed by anyone who might be watching from the woods.

As the alcohol and drugs come out, the varied personalities rub up against each other, feelings are hurt, and tempers flare. Clare's maid of honor, Flo, is a bit of a mental wreck (in more ways than one), wanting everything to be perfect, which ratchets the tension and instability to an even greater pitch. Once Clare admits to Nora why she invited her to the party, their past issues are brought to the forefront and things spin out of control from multiple angles.

I liked In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ware's writing and the story format kept me glued for the first half of the book. Written in alternating chapters from Nora's hospital bed and flashbacks telling the story of the weekend, I was dying to know what had taken place in that eerie house, as well as between Clare and Nora ten years ago. Gallons of foreshadowing was there for the taking and I was buying it all the way.

Then the story turned into something different than expected and I was left with a small case of mixed feelings. Some of the story elements I thought most compelling ended up being ignored and I was a bit disappointed they weren't mined for the gold they seemed set up to be.

I can't really fault Ware for telling the story she wanted to tell, but my anticipation came from her own prose (and the cover/title, to be honest). The change felt more like an odd left turn than a twist, and the creeptastic events I felt I was heading into never emerged. And yes, there are some plot elements we've all seen before: the post-trauma amnesia, the historical "misunderstanding," the main character having an epiphany about something glaringly obvious and doing something incredibly stupid in the final moments  (especially so for a crime writer).

My biggest disconnect was with the depth of emotion and meaning attributed to sixteen year old girls. It would have resonated more authentically with me if the past friendship issues had occurred in Nora's 20s and she and Clare were now in their 30s. As it was, I had trouble taking seriously the depth of her experience at 16. Perhaps I'm simply too far removed from that age group (i.e., old), so this is an issue I'd love to get other opinions about.

All of the above being said, In a Dark, Dark Wood held me through to the end. I was never tempted to put it down and it was a pretty fun ride, even though I had to use a different ticket than I thought I would need. I enjoyed Ware's writing style, which flowed well and never got too bogged down, despite quite a bit of time spent in Nora's head. There's also some great snarky humor despite the increasing sense of foreboding, and I thought Ware did a good job of making all of the characters distinct and unique, though each a bit amplified at the cost of some depth.

STREET SENSE: If it's a page-turning bit of suspense you're after, In a Dark, Dark Wood will certainly fit the bill. It's not the deepest, darkest, creepiest suspense you'll find, but it's a swift trip with some interesting characters that will surely entertain.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  You'd think people would be wary of spilling to a writer. You'd think they'd know that we're essentially birds of carrion, picking over the corpses of dead affairs and forgotten arguments to recycle them in our work -- zombie reincarnations of their former selves, stitched into a macabre new patchwork of our own devising.

COVER NERD SAYS: I love the cover of A Dark, Dark Wood, which is beautiful both in a visual and tactile sense. The imagery is fantastic and along with the font sets up a true feeling of foreboding and horror.  What you can't tell from the photograph is that the cover is, for lack of a better descriptor, like letterpress. Everything black on the cover is raised and can be felt by passing hands or fingers over the paper. Beautiful work. I do think, however, that the cover added to my feelings of the plot turn being strange. The cover evoked feelings I just didn't really get from the story itself. In that way, I'm not sure it served the book well, but it is a beautiful piece of work.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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